To me, it’s the obvious approach. The evidence for applying psychology and behavioural research to marketing – or any communications – is so convincing, it would seem foolhardy not to.And yet many companies don’t. Why? I think it comes down to three obstacles.

But our research says…

First, I think some still view behavioural insights with scepticism. Weight is placed on traditional market research, which relies on claimed data. This kind of research is unlikely to reveal the significance of psychological biases for the simple reason that people are not aware of them.

An excellent demonstration of this is a study by Adrian North, a psychologist at the University of Leicester. 

Over a two-week period, North alternated the ambient music in a supermarket wine aisle between German oompah and French accordion-style. The results were significant: when French music was played, wine sales were 77% French; with a German soundtrack, 73% of sales were German. 

But when asked, just 2% of buyers attributed their selection to the background music. Even when prompted, 86% of people were sure it had no impact at all.

It’s not that they were lying, they were simply unaware of their motivations. The reasons they gave for their decisions were post-rationalisations. In the memorable words of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, the rational mind “thinks of itself as the Oval Office when actually it’s the press office”.

So, if we continue to rely on claimed research, behavioural biases will appear to be insignificant influencers – and therefore not necessary as part of a campaign.

I would urge you to try some research yourself. Make simple tweaks in your customers’ decision-making environment and observe the difference in response across different settings. It can be a cost-effective way of uncovering peoples’ real motivations.


Feeling the fear 

A second reason for underuse is, I think, fear of failure. There’s a perception that applying these biases might somehow be risky. Take the pratfall effect – the classic finding by Elliot Aronson that a high-performing individual is better-liked after demonstrating a degree of clumsiness. It’s been used to great effect by, for example, Stella in “Reassuringly expensive”. 

But are you going to be the one who presents an idea to the CMO in which the strategy relies on highlighting a weakness? If the campaign falls flat, what’s the likely focus of blame? 

It’s what is called the principal-agent problem – an idea from Stephen Ross, a former MIT professor. There is a divergence of interest between the principal (the brand) and the agent (the agency employee). The brand wants long-term profitable growth whereas the agency wants ongoing business – and their staff want to keep their jobs. 

This difference of interests leads to perverse consequences: campaigns shaped by personal risk-aversion. There tends to be a reliance on tried-and-tested, but staid, ideas and a failure to branch into new areas. 

It seems clear to me though, that there is a far higher risk – the opportunity cost – attached to not applying behavioural science in your thinking.

You can read more about the pratfall effect here.


A daunting task

And thirdly – I think there is still a lack of knowledge. There’s a bewildering array of academic studies to call on: where do you begin? 

Here’s where a framework is useful. Probably the simplest to start with is EAST, a framework created by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to help government communicators apply behavioural science. It comprises four key principles: Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. 

This covers some of the key psychological biases, but if you’re looking for something a bit more comprehensive, The Behaviours Agency’s proprietary model called BE.CREATE identifies behavioural opportunities.

Finally, investing in training on the application of behavioural science for the relevant staff in your team will reap rewards for your brand, and you can find out more about our training sessions here.

A unique opportunity

Behavioural science is a powerful tool for marketers when it is used literally or laterally but the strongest effect comes when findings are interpreted laterally.

That’s an opportunity that I’m excited to be working on with The Behaviours Agency, who are combining their strong creative thinking with insights from behavioural science to develop more impactful and effective ideas.

I hope that the tips I’ve described here will help to remove any blocks to using behavioural insights and allow the free-flow of fresh ideas into your creative and strategy.

By Richard Shotton

Behavioural Scientist